Avoiding the Back to School Homework Blues


Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. and Sydney Zentall, Ph.D.

Your home has been a homework-free zone, but summer is over. Although going back to school may free-up time during your day the thought of homework is an experience each year that is often met with uncomfortable expectation. If you are like most parents, you feel a mixture of emotions about homework. Some of them positive, but many of them unpleasant. Frustration, annoyance, boredom, confusion, and even anger are among the many negative emotions parents, as well as their children, express when it comes to homework. Face it, most of us did not like doing homework when we were kids and we probably do not like it any better as parents.

Homework, you are reminded constantly by your childís teachers, is an important component of the school experience. You are told that completing homework successfully makes for successful students. Homework continues to be an institution in our educational system. Even in well functioning families under ideal circumstances, homework can be one of the hottest parent-child crisis buttons. Parents are unsure as to the best time, place, routine, or system their child should use to complete homework. Many children rebel and parents feel overwhelmed by the pressure of meeting their childrenís school demands. It is not surprising that parents complain about homework almost as much as their children do.

Most children during their school career forget some assignments, lose homework, require assistance, or make mistakes. Some children have difficulty learning essential skills that enable them to complete homework independently. Some have trouble obtaining assignments. Some may be confused, overwhelmed with long-term projects, or rush through assignments. For children experiencing school problems, the challenges of homework are added to existing classroom difficulties. It is not uncommon for these children to bring incomplete class work home as well as homework. For them, and for you, there is the prospect of hours and hours of schoolwork at home, often with minimal long-term benefit.

Your childís ability to be successful with homework begins with the value you place upon homework. Success also requires helping your child develop essential homework skills, creating a working alliance with your child and teachers as well as learning to deal with common homework problems. In this article, we provide answers to five of the most common homework problems parents face.

  1. When your child wonít do homework without you. Asking about homework and helping out is an important part of your guiding role as a parent, especially for elementary aged children experiencing difficulty completing homework independently. Try to establish a working relationship with your child. This will create a homework alliance in which you have an agreed upon time, place and system for completing and monitoring homework each day. Keep in mind, however, excessive involvement in your childís homework, may stifle the ability to learn to do homework independently. Be available for assistance and feedback. Do not jump in too quickly to correct homework, nor wait until the 11th hour when, out of frustration, you end up completing their homework.

  2. When your child repeatedly makes excuses to avoid doing homework. By staying involved with your childrenís education, you will be familiar enough with their ability and homework habits to know when they are really struggling with homework or when they are using excuses to avoid homework. Sometimes "itís too hard" or "I donít understand it" are honest statements. Other times they reflect strategies your child may use to avoid working independently. Children who make excuses for not completing homework, even though they possess the understanding, the skill, and the opportunity to complete it successfully, should be held responsible for their behavior. Follow these steps:

    (1)† Encourage your child to take responsibility for homework and donít allow yourself to get trapped in lengthy discussion or arguments.

    (2)† Set up homework rules that you and your child can agree to follow.

    (3)† Help your child make short-term homework goals that can gradually be extended. Keep in mind that some children are overwhelmed with the thought of too much homework.

    (4)† Reinforce and praise appropriate homework behavior and avoid a negative pattern of scolding, nagging, or threatening.

  3. When your child waits until the last minute to start homework assignments. Everyone procrastinates to some extent. Avoiding an unpleasant task in exchange for doing something more pleasurable is common for all of us. Some children, however, get stuck in a procrastination holding pattern. They donít get started on daily homework assignments until late in the day or evening, put off working on long-term projects and fail to study for tests in advance. You can help you child avoid the procrastination habit.

    (1) † Choose a pleasant, consistent place to complete homework.

    (2)† Create an agreed upon schedule and routine for homework.

    (3)† Have your child learn to make checklists of what needs to be completed.

    (4)† Provide appropriate supervision.

    (5)† Create incentives including pleasurable activities that can be accessed when homework is partially or fully completed.

    (6)† Set goals and use a clock or timer to help your child to develop a sense of timeliness for required tasks.

  4. When your child rushes through homework and makes careless errors. Some children rush through their homework but do it thoroughly and correctly. In general this is not a problem. However, many others rush to complete homework just to get it done. They make numerous careless errors, hand in sloppy work or fail to pay attention to directions. These children need to work at a slower pace and check their assignments for accuracy. They need to learn that inaccurately completed work is unacceptable. If your child sacrifices accuracy for speed, try the following.

    (1)† Review homework assignments nightly, checking for thoroughness, neatness and accuracy. Encourage, but do not demand that mistakes are corrected.

    (2)† Have your child underline or highlight important words or phrases in directions of an assignment as a means of cueing what needs to be done.

    (3)† Emphasize that you want your child to do their best work, not their fastest work.

    (4)† Help your child self-monitor by checking for errors in spelling, punctuation, neatness, calculations, correct headings, etc.

  5. Withhold privileges until you are satisfied that your child has put forth the best effort possible and has completed homework accurately. Be aware, however, that if you suspect errors are due to poor understanding rather than hasty completion, provide needed assistance. Some children have difficulty with written homework due to visual motor problems. This makes it difficult for them to write neatly. Asking them to re-do homework to be neater is often frustrating and fruitless. If the goal of the task is creativity and ideas, offer assistance. If the goal of the task is to develop neat handwriting, then additional practice for some children may be warranted.

With patience, planning, insight, and empathy you can avoid singing the back to school homework blues this year and help your children experience homework success.

Drs. Zentall and Goldstein are authors of Homework Workbook: A Seven Step Plan to Hassle Free Homework (Specialty Press, 1999).

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